CLEVELAND — If you can't be an NBA superstar, the next best thing is to play next to one.
The superstar dunks, you whoop and holler. He hits a buzzer-beater, you give him a chest bump. Occasionally, you throw down one of his misses, and the superstar points approvingly.
The superstar will carry you to 50-win seasons, deep playoff runs and, quite possibly, a championship.
A blessing, some call it. Except when it isn't.
"It's a gift and a curse," says Cleveland Cavaliers guard Jordan Clarkson, one of 14 players who is currently blessed with having LeBron James as his teammate. "You got the attention of everybody watching all the time. It's just part of it."
By "attention," Clarkson means "scrutiny." Also: criticism, blame, ire and occasional apoplexy. None of it will be proportional, and it may not be rational.
If the Cavaliers somehow rally from a 2-0 deficit in the NBA Finals and beat the Golden State Warriors, all attention will be on James winning his fourth championship. If they lose, James will also take the brunt of the backlash—but with a big, bold caveat attached: It's because of his teammates.
More specifically: Because his teammates aren't good enough.
The Warriors have four All-Stars. LeBron has Kevin Love and a band of not-so-merry journeymen.
Every missed jumper, wayward pass and late-game gaffe (hello, JR Smith) carries heavy consequences. Any other team loses, it's a disappointment. The Cavs lose, it's a stain on LeBron's legacy.
"I'd say there's a microscope," Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson says. "You got to be ready to perform every night. So, you got to be prepared for that. And some guys can't handle those big stages; some guys can."
The microscope has not been kind. It's magnified Smith forgetting the score and dribbling out the clock at the end of regulation in a tied Game 1. And George Hill's missed free throw just before that. It's amplified Clarkson's clanked jumpers and Jeff Green's general malaise.
James delivered a historic performance in Game 1—51 points, eight rebounds, eight assists—and the Cavs lost anyway. He followed that with a 29-point, 13-assist, nine-rebound effort in Game 2, and came away with a 19-point defeat.
No one could really blame James for those losses. So the backlash naturally fell to the unsupportive supporting cast, and left Smith relying on a well-worn cliche.
"It's a gift and a curse," he said over the weekend. "You play on his team, and you're playing with the best player in the world, and you get to witness some great, historic things and be a part of it. Then, on the other side, if you don't help that person win, they're looking at you, too. So it's a lot of pressure, depending on how you look at it."
Smith has missed 14 of his 19 shots so far. Clarkson has missed 10 of 13. Even Kyle Korver, the Cavs' designated sharpshooter, has gone flat, missing five of his six attempts. It's gotten so desperate that coach Tyronn Lue is considering a more prominent role for Rodney Hood, who was all but banished from the rotation.
Perhaps the burden of being LeBron's teammate is too great for those who make up this group. Or at least, that's what these guys are hearing every day.
"It's definitely a present thing," says Larry Nance Jr., who arrived here with Clarkson in a February trade. "You can't turn on ESPN or SportsCenter without everybody else like, 'Oh, LeBron's got no help,' and all that stuff. But anybody that's saying that is outside of our locker room. And the only opinions we're worried about are the ones inside our locker room."
Though, as Clarkson separately acknowledged, playing with James is different than playing anywhere else, or with anyone else.
"Especially us new guys, we talk about it," he said. "We're new here; it's a new experience for us. Definitely, I feel like you can feel it, too. It's part of the game. It comes with it."
Hood, who was also acquired in February, recently told the Undefeated, "You lose a game and you feel like the world is coming down. You win, it's like, you're supposed to win. It's still a struggle to me to adapt to that."
Screw up on LeBron's team, and you’ll quickly become a viral sensation. A thousand memes sprang from the image of James yelling at Smith after his Game 1 mishap. On Monday, new footage circulated of James stewing on the bench—and reacting with anger when he learned the Cavs had a timeout they could have used.
As with all things LeBron, this dynamic is unique. If the Warriors lose, it won't be blamed on JaVale McGee. But then, the stakes are so much higher for Cleveland. James is 33, with an ever-shrinking window to contend for titles, and free agency looming. If these Cavs cannot help him raise another banner, he just might find that help elsewhere—in Philadelphia or Houston or Los Angeles.
That much is universally understood, if not necessarily discussed in polite company here. Whenever LeBron has found his supporting cast lacking, he's left to find a better supporting cast—ditching Cleveland for Miami in 2010, then ditching Miami to return home in 2014.
"What's on my mind is getting my body, mind and focus ready for Game 3," Thompson insisted. "We've had a great run together. That's always going to be my brother, regardless."
The blessing/curse paradigm? Thompson rejects the latter part, having ridden the James train to four straight Finals, one championship and one very large contract.
"I wouldn't say it's a curse," he said. "It's definitely a blessing, because I definitely ate the fruits of his labor really well."
The benefits also include a lot of open shots and ample opportunity to succeed. That's the message Cavs veteran Jose Calderon is delivering daily to his younger teammates.
"Are you a scorer? Score," Calderon says he tells them. "Man, you don't have to change anything. ... You're gonna be open—shoot it. Now, if you miss shots or whatever, we figure it out."
Still, the burden is there and undeniable and, at times, even palpable. You can hear it in the Cavs' testy responses, and see it in their taut expressions.
"You can tell," Warriors rookie Jordan Bell says. "Last game, Jordan Clarkson had came in. I think he missed like two shots, and I looked up—he was out of the game. I was like, 'Damn, he got pulled already, just for missing two shots?' I guess when you play with LeBron, all you have to do is just catch and shoot. If you're not doing that well, I guess you got to come out."
There are no such concerns for the historically stacked Warriors. Stephen Curry has Kevin Durant, and Durant has Curry, and they both have Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, and, well, no one is fretting much over Nick Young's 1-of-9 shooting.
"This is a blessing—that's it," Bell says with a smile. "There's no curse."